The "I" in Nudie Cohn's name should be dotted with a rhinestone. The legendary tailor is the namesake of the made-to-measure Nudie Suit, worn by some of country music's biggest stars including Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. His Lankershim Boulevard store, and unofficial social club, Nudie's Rodeo Tailors, is where the Rhinestone Cowboy imagined many of these iconic looks.
Cohn was a rock star in his own right (even graving the cover of 1969's Rolling Stone) whose glamorous western wear became signatures for the era's brightest stars. The man who came from nothing, to make millions, proved you could do anything if you allow yourself to shine.
Cohn crafted a decadent lifestyle in which he designed for and surrounded himself with beautiful people. Nutya Kotlyrenko, born in 1902, adopted his moniker after immigration officials butchered his given name at the American border. At age 11, he moved from Kiev to the US to escape the anti-Semitism of Czarist Russia. He worked as a shoeshine boy and boxer before meeting his wife, Bobbie, at a Minnesota boardinghouse. Together, during the Great Depression, the couple moved to New York City. The Cohn's first business venture was Nudie's for the Ladies: a burlesque boutique whose best seller was bedazzled G-strings.
In the early 1940s, Nudie and Bobbie moved to California to take their fashion career to the next level. While living in New York City, Cohn became mesmerized by country western films, which he often watched in his leisure time. He felt as though the stars were missing pizzazz and approached country singer Tex Williams to test-drive this theory.
Williams wanted the nosebleed section to notice his costumes, which prompted Cohn to hand-sew rhinestones onto every piece of fringe. Williams famously auctioned one of his horses to buy Cohn his first sewing machine in exchange for the wearable art. He came Cohns' first, walking advertisement. After sewing out of his garage, using a ping-pong table as his cutting board, Cohn moved into his first west coast store in North Hollywood.
Cohn's had a great love and respect for clothing and his clients. As business grew, and he and Bobbie became custom tailors to clients such as Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, they moved to their Lankershim Boulevard flagship store in 1963. In the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s Cohn's most famous creations became his themed costumes. He wasn't trying to make the priciest clothing in the world but rather encapsulate the essence of each client.
The one-of-a-kind suits became a sartorial addiction and collectible item for many celebrities. Most notably: Elvis' $10,000 gold lame suit, Porter Wagner's wagon wheelhouse themed suit, Gram Parsons' marijuana and pills suit, worn on the cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers' 1969 album "The Gilded Palace of Sin," and Hank Williams' white cowboy suit. Other clients during this period included John Wayne, Cher, John Lennon, and Hank Snow.
As legend has it, Bobbie, Cohn's wife, inspired Nudie's Rodeo Tailors' cowgirl label. According to the couple's granddaughter, Bobbie walked out of their bedroom dressed merely in a cowboy hat, boots and holster and asked her husband, "Where is the rest of my outfit?" Hence, the scandalous, iconic image, which was later tweaked with the addition of a bolero top, was born.
Hanging around Nudie's Rodeo Tailors became one of the ways young stars obtained prestige. Custom clothing was the bulk of the business and embroiderers, pant, shirt and boot makers scurried throughout the retail store and tailor shop. Beautiful people came often to the elite "Nudie Suit parties" to drink, dance and have impromptu jam sessions. After a hard-knock childhood, the luxury label designer became determined to live the good life. He made certain there was always a party and the 6,600-square-foot building became the place to be.
Cohn wanted his stars to feel confident in his clothing. His own look was composed of embellished suits paired with mismatched cowboy boots. The shoes served as a testament to Cohn's modest upbringing. Cohn was also a master of clever, self-promotional tactics. He drove around in rhinestone-emblazoned Pontiac convertibles (also known as "Nudie Mobiles") and decorated dollar bills with stickers of his own mug.
The man who set the bar for contemporary society's current obsession with bling passed away at age 81 in 1984. Bobbie and their granddaughter Jamie continued to run the business until its close in 1994. Jamie has since carried on the designer's legacy with a biography and official company website. Nashville designer Manuel Cuevas also carries a torch for his former business partner and father-in-law. After honing his skills in the designer's shop for 14 years, Cuevas has since become a star in his own right. Although Cuevas, in his typical candor, admits, "while I've since made my own name, back in the day, it was all about Nudie.
This post was originally published on September 1, 2015.